Jets have some tough decisions to make
Competition fierce for final roster spots
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The Winnipeg Jets are coming off their most complete effort of the pre-season, with a 5-0 win over the Calgary Flames at Canada Life Centre Wednesday night.
The Jets, who improved to 3-1-1 in the exhibition season, were led by their new-look top line of Kyle Connor, Mark Scheifele and Nikolaj Ehlers, with the trio combining for four goals and six points. Backup goalie David Rittich also stood out, registering 37 saves for the shutout.
Winnipeg wraps up the pre-season schedule with a rematch against the Flames at the Saddledome Friday night. With just one game remaining before the regular season gets underway against the New York Rangers on Friday Oct. 14, there will need to be some tough roster decisions made.
Here are 10 observations heading into Friday’s game.
1) The Jets currently have 27 players still in camp, including two goalies, 10 defencemen and 15 forwards, with that number needing to be trimmed down to a 23-man roster. Jets head coach Rick Bowness was asked after Wednesday’s game if he had a good idea of who was in his opening-day lineup, to which he answered: “Yes. Without a doubt.” Makes me wonder if anyone could win a job on Friday or if what we see is what they’ll go with against the Rangers.
2) Among the biggest storylines in training camp is the instalment of new systems in all three areas of the ice. The Jets definitely looked the most structured against the Flames, with the most noticeable aspect being the defencemen jumping up into the play and forwards remembering to drop back to support. The Jets have looked cleaner in each game, and Wednesday was a good sign as Calgary’s lineup consisted almost entirely of NHL regulars. That said, there’s still plenty of work to be done before we see a polished team. My concern with this club is how long it will take to completely buy in — or whether that’s even achievable for a club that struggled under the previous regime to play an aggressive style of hockey.
3) Brad Lambert certainly impressed in his first two pre-season games. There’s an argument to be made that the 18-year-old Finn was the best player on the ice in a 4-3 win over the Montreal Canadiens and he could have sealed a victory against the Edmonton Oilers with an impressive individual effort in the 3-on-3 overtime. But against a veteran-laden Flames lineup, Lambert looked overwhelmed at times by the competition. He was playing with new linemates in fellow rookie Cole Perfetti and centre Dominic Toninato, and Bowness was intentionally playing them against a very good Calgary line of Dillon Dube, Nazem Kadri and Andrew Mangiapane.
4) Morgan Barron appears to be the front-runner to play the left wing on the Jets third line, alongside centre Adam Lowry and Mason Appleton. Bowness talked openly about wanting to see Barron play there after missing much of the first two weeks of camp and had nothing but good things to say about him after his pre-season debut against the Flames. Bowness plans to use the trio as a shutdown line; he had them playing against Calgary’s top line of Jonathan Huberdeau, Elias Lindholm and Tyler Toffoli, and they more than carried their weight.
5) I don’t know where that leaves forward Jansen Harkins, other than a spot on the fourth line. With how often Harkins gets injured — he’s been banged up the past week — it’s a good reminder that sometimes the best ability is availability.
6) Making a big assumption that will be the third line — with the top-6 already set in stone as well — that leaves some healthy competition left to round out the forward group. The expectation is that the Jets will go with 13 forwards and eight defence, meaning there will be one extra spot up front that will occupy a seat in the press box. With veteran Sam Gagner, who had a stellar two-assist night against Calgary, a lock to play on the fourth line, that leaves three spots open between five players: David Gustafsson, Saku Maenalanen, Harkins, Toninato and Lambert.
7) My guess is the fourth line will be made up of Harkins, Gustafsson and Gagner, with Toninato as the extra forward. To be clear, I’ve been impressed with Maenalanen, but the 28-year-old is an easier option to demote to the Moose, owing to the fact he’s waiver exempt, with the chance to return to the NHL club in the event Winnipeg finds itself in injury trouble. That also leaves Lambert on the outside looking in. He’s been good but at 18 he still needs some seasoning. The original plan was to send him to the WHL’s Seattle Thunderbirds so he could get some confidence after a rough year playing against men in Finland. Clearly, he’s got his mojo back, but he’s better off playing big minutes with the Manitoba Moose than learning on the fly in the Jets top-6. He should be the first call-up in the event of an injury.
8) This is supposed to be the year that Ville Heinola makes the jump to being a full-time NHLer. While his offensive skills have been on full display, so have some of the defensive liabilities that have kept him in the AHL. Personally, I think there should be a spot for the 21-year-old blueliner, especially with Bowness wanting more scoring from the defence. With the Jets not clearing some space with a trade over the off-season, I just don’t see where he fits in the top-6 and the last thing he needs is to be eating popcorn in the press box.
9) With Josh Morrissey, Neal Pionk, Brendan Dillon, Nate Schmidt and Dylan DeMelo all locks on the blue line, I see Dylan Samberg earning the sixth spot, with Logan Stanley and Johnathan Kovacevic as the two extras. As is the case with Lambert, Heinola doesn’t have to clear waivers and should be the first call up.
10) Goaltender Mikael Berdin won’t be part of the Winnipeg Jets or Manitoba Moose for the upcoming hockey season, per the advice and recommendation of the NHL/NHLPA Substance Abuse and Behavioral Health Program. There was no additional information provided on which part of the program applied to Berdin, though reports suggest it has nothing to do with substance abuse. Berdin had been away from the team the past week for “personal reasons.” Under this decision, the rights of the club and player are consistent to that of a suspended player, meaning Berdin will not be paid by the Jets and his salary will not count against the salary cap. Berdin has been cleared to sign a one-year contract to play outside of North America for this year.
After a slew of injuries playing hockey that included breaks to the wrist, arm, and collar bone; a tear of the medial collateral ligament in both knees; as well as a collapsed lung, Jeff figured it was a good idea to take his interest in sports off the ice and in to the classroom.
Updated on Friday, October 7, 2022 11:44 AM CDT: Corrects reference to Maenalanen's waiver exemption.